Published 12 May 2017
White privilege is a term that has caused much controversy in America. Basically, what it boils down to is that white people have ultimate privilege without even knowing it. White people have privileged not to be judged for the actions of other members of their race. They have privilege to buy the products they need to function well and to get their needs met, like hair products and make-up. White people never have to worry about racism or that they will have to speak for the entire race. They can see themselves represented on television, in movies, in magazines and everywhere else. However, white people do not like to talk about white privilege or even acknowledge it.
As Rothenberg says, “Perhaps there is a strong desire to deny the impact of racism because recognizing it might demand that we talk about white responsibility, white complicity, white privilege” (Rothenberg 6). However, people assume that one can tell both race and ethnicity from just looking at a person, and this is impossible. Race is a social construct made by humans, and should not be a factor in making judgments about people. Human beings have used the social construct of race to determine not really who is white but who isn’t. Those who are white receive all the benefits of white privilege. In the movie Crash, the benefits of white privilege are played out again and again by the characters and they way they are judged or not judged by others.
In one of the very first scenes, white privilege is shown and toyed with. Two young black men are walking down the street, and when they are passed by a white couple, the white woman is visibly fearful. They discuss the episode.
Anthony: Look around! You couldn’t find a whiter, safer or better lit part of this city. But this white woman sees two black guys, who look like UCLA students, strolling down the sidewalk and her reaction is blind fear. I mean, look at us! Are we dressed like gangbangers? Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared, it’s us: the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the triggerhappy LAPD. So, why aren’t we scared?
Peter: Because we have guns?
Anthony: You could be right. (Crash)
Anthony is right in the fact that these two black men are well dressed and look like any other people on the street except for the fact that they are black. Nobody is fearful of young white men or women walking down the street.
No one clutches their purses when a white person walks by. However, the movie explores this concept and then the two black men pull out guns and carjack the white couple, which leads some to believe that their theory had been right all along. It really gives the reader further excuses to judge on the basis of race. However, the concept of white privilege is clearly shown that no one cringes at Jean and her husband, well-dressed white people. The two black males correctly identify the idea of white privilege and are willing to say the words out loud, but then they go ahead and play into the stereotypes anyway.
Another example of white privilege is clearly shown when the Hispanic locksmith shows up at Jean’s house to fix the locks. She is still reeling from the carjacking incident, but she is taken aback by this Hispanic man with tattoos on his arms. She decides by looking at him that she wants the locks changed again tomorrow because he is a gangbanger and a criminal. Basically, she takes one look at him and decides all of this. The white couple here has the nice house with valuables to protect and the Hispanic man is the locksmith. Jean makes value judgments about him simply by looking at him, not knowing that he is an honest, family man.
Jean: [rudely] Goodnight. I would like the locks changed again in the morning. And you know what, you might mention that next time we’d appreciate it if they didn’t send a gang member…
Rick: A gang member?
Jean: Yes, yeah.
Rick: What do you mean? That kid in there?
Jean: Yea. The guy in there with the shaved head, the pants around his ass, the prison tattoos.
Rick: Oh come on. Those are not prison tattoos.
Jean: Oh really? And he’s not gonna go sell our key to one of his gang banger friends the moment he’s out our door?
Rick: Look, you’ve had a really tough night. I think it’d be best if you’d go upstairs right now and…
Jean: And what? Wait for them to break in?
Jean: I just had a gun pointed in my face…
Rick: You lower your voice.
Jean: [yelling] … and it was my fault because I knew it was gonna happen. But if a white person sees two black men walking towards her and she turns and walks away, she’s a racist, right? Well I got scared and I didn’t do anything and ten seconds later I had a gun in my face. Now I am telling you, your amigo in there is going to sell our key to one of his homes and this time it would be really fucking great if you acted like you gave a shit! (Crash)
Again, this is an example of the ultimate white privilege. Jean wants to act on her prejudices toward him and other members of his race without seeing anything wrong with her own actions. She doesn’t understand why her husband would object to this. Being this ignorant and racist without understanding that she is ignorant and racist is the ultimate white privilege. Jean does not understand the many laws that were passed in this country to help her get where she is. These same “helps” were not available to Hispanics. She also does not understand that this man probably faces prejudice almost everywhere he goes. She sees herself as Rothenberg says, carrying on business as usual instead of understanding that she is perpetuating institutionalized racism. She believes that she is separated from this man because she is more intelligent and hardworking, not because she is white. This man is an extremely hard worker and an upstanding man, but she will never see past his race.
Really Jean’s entire character in this movie exudes white privilege. She does not associate with anyone who is not wealthy and connected, therefore, white. She treats her Hispanic maid like an animal criticizing everything she does. Her whole life is about exercise at the gym and spas and money. She has no idea about the policies in this country that made it possible for her and people like her to accumulate wealth and privilege and the fact that opportunities were not open to everyone. Either that or she knows and does not care. Her politician husband understands it better but is more than willing to use the downtrodden or play the “race card” in order to get votes. He wants to make his constituency think that he supports the minority issues. But it is pretty clear that he doesn’t really get it either, especially when he goes home every night to that kind of luxury. Neither one of them acknowledges the role of white privilege in their own lives nor the lives of those in their social circle.
One of the ultimate examples of white privilege is what Officer Ryan feels that he can do to Christine while her husband Cameron looks on. Because she is black or with a black man, Officer Ryan feels that he has the right to violate her because he knows he will never get in trouble for it. Cameron later on is looked at as “white” because he is a hard-working, educated black man. When the producer tells Cameron that one of his actors is not talking “black enough” on the set, this is the ultimate insult. A white person can talk any way he/she wants to. A white person can be uneducated and speak poorly or educated and speak well, but a black person must speak “black English.” No one acknowledges this as white privilege. Ultimately, unlike the characters in the movie Crash, white privilege needs to be acknowledged. As Paula Rothenberg says in her introduction to White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, “As for the concern that looking at whiteness and white privilege will deflect our attention from racism, this could not be further from the truth. White privilege is the other side of racism.
Unless we name it, we are in danger of wallowing in guilt or moral outrage with no idea of how to move beyond it. It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it. By choosing to look at white privilege, we gain an understanding of who benefits from racism and how they do so. Once we understand how white privilege operates, we can begin to take steps to dismantle it on both a personal and an institutional level” (Rothenberg 3). As the characters from Crash demonstrate, there is no such thing as color-blindness. While this may be a nice dream for some, the reality of life in America is that we are hyper-aware of a person’s color (not race, mind you). In fact, many times color is what is looked at to form a variety of other judgments about people. Most people do not understand why other races are not thriving in this country the way white Americans are. They do not understand the implications of the Homestead Act for Native Americans or the Indian Removal Act.
They do not understand the full ramifications of slavery on the black family unit today. They do not understand that the rights of citizenship were not granted to non-whites until 1952. They do not understand what the Federal Housing Administration, the GI bill, and redlining did to enhance racism and inequality in this country. They see no reason why other races are not thriving, but all of these things and many more, play a part. Until Americans begin to understand these things, and then correct some of the wrongs perpetrated, conditions will not get better. The very term “white privilege” raises the hackles on people’s backs because many are so unwilling to acknowledge that it even exists. Robert Jensen, a university professor at University of Texas, was lambasted for introducing the idea of white privilege. Everyone wants to believe that we got ahead because of our own determination and hard work, but that just isn’t so.
- Rothenberg, Paula S. White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, New York: Worth Publishers, 2002.